Friday, January 14, 2011

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett


I can't comment on the substance of this book. It's fundamentally not the kind of book that anyone can really endorse as true or criticize as false who hasn't lived through the events and periods described. I certainly am in no position to judge the accuracy of it. But I can say that Stockett tells the story well, and, at least to my uneducated eye, fairly even-handedly. She chooses her narrators well, each one bringing a slightly different flavor to the story.

This is actually an excellent companion read for My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered, an oral history of the civil rights movement in the South.  While that book examines the movement itself--the students and protestors and activists who poured into southern towns determined to make a difference--this is a fictional account of the women who live and work in those towns.  They may not like the way things are, and most of them have definite sympathies one way or another, but they are not eager to embroil themselves in the tumult that surrounds them.

It is particularly eye-opening to see how these protests and demonstrations might have affected the black women who had to live in the towns after the activists moved on.  While the maids depicted here are far from happy with their substandard treatment, they are more concerned with the mundane, day-to-day details of keeping their jobs, feeding their kids, and ensuring physical safety for themselves and their families.  Which is not to say that the protestors or activists were in the wrong--it's just an interesting perspective.

Then, too, it's a fascinating exploration of the social and economic pressures and punishments that white women could visit upon their employees and those who were perceived as sympathizing with the civil rights movement.  The black women here are certainly aware that speaking out about their treatment could result in physical violence, but the retaliation they fear most is much more subtle--being fired, being slandered so that they cannot find another job, being evicted, or being accused of and ultimately imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.  White women who dared to challenge the status quo would be punished with complete social ostracization.  The civil rights issue could divide even long time friends. 

There are some more general social lessons here, too--it's not just about race.  Stockett comments on class stereotypes, too, and the importance of showing love, affection, and acceptance to one's children. Skeeter Phelan, the white author of the book-within-the-book, after speaking with another character, observes:  "I wonder if I could've made her days a little bit easier, if I'd tried.  If I'd treated her a little nicer."  Skeeter then realizes that the point of the book is "[f]or women to realize, we are just two people.  Not that much separates us.  Not nearly as much as I'd thought."  The striking thing is, she comes to this realization in the context of her relationship with another white woman.  The lesson of caring for others reaches across racial lines and back again--for Stockett, it is universal.  (Among women, anyway. Men appear only peripherally, and usually in far-from-heroic roles.  But then, this is a book about women, so perhaps this gender bias is not indicative of any intended social commentary.)

NOTE:  The audio book, voiced by three separate narrators (one of whom, Octavia Spencer, reads the role she played in the recent film version), is extremely well done.  I found that it forced me to slow down and absorb details that I completely missed on my first read-through.  It's on the long side--14 discs--but well worth the time.

Bottom line:  A fascinating and compelling read, if necessarily unpleasant at times.

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